By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Nobody, in the wake of Randy St. Claire's firing yesterday, suggested he deserved total blame. Nobody suggested his replacement, Steve McCatty, would shepherd a total turnaround. St. Claire's superiors, while acknowledging that culpability for a 13-36 start ran higher, simply believed the move had to be made. St. Claire's pitchers -- many of whom had known no other big league pitching coach -- wished they'd pitched well enough to prevent it.
Having already rearranged much of their pitching staff to little avail, the Washington Nationals fired St. Claire, their longest-tenured coach, and replaced him with McCatty, who was in his fourth season as the organization's Class AAA pitching coach. St. Claire was a casualty of the losing. Known as a diligent worker, respected for his ability to resurrect pitching careers and help sub-par talent find adequacy, St. Claire this year found no way to fix his staff.
When St. Claire was notified of his firing on Monday night by acting general manager Mike Rizzo, he didn't even need an explanation. The Nationals' staff had a 5.69 ERA, worst in baseball. They'd blown 13 saves, most in baseball. They'd battled chronic control problems. Free agent acquisition Daniel Cabrera, a pet project for St. Claire, had been released after eight painful starts. In an effort to fix the bullpen, the team had cycled through 14 relievers.
"The pitching isn't performing up to where it needs to be to win, and I think a lot of factors go into it, but I guess I'm easier to replace than 12 guys," St. Claire said.
St. Claire joined the organization in December 2002. He worked for two managers in two cities. When the team moved to Washington, he stayed on board. He survived Jim Bowden's arrival, Manny Acta's hiring, and the coaching staff purge at the end of last season. He relied on what some in the organization called a new school approach, heavy on statistical analysis and video study.
With McCatty, the Nationals have adopted a philosophical shift -- a change they hope can aid the staff's tendency to nibble at the strike zone.
Asked about his taste for using video, McCatty quipped that " 'Lethal Weapon' was one of my favorite [movies]." Then, turning serious, he added: "I'll look at it, but I firmly believe that when you're in the big leagues you're talented enough that if your mental approach will allow you to compete and just go out and be aggressive and attack the zone."
In previous years, St. Claire had proven capable of coaxing results from almost anybody. The 2007 Nationals, for instance, relied on a starting staff that included, among others, Mike Bacsik, Micah Bowie, Jerome Williams and Jason Simontacchi. That year, Washington had a 4.58 ERA, 19th best in the majors.
St. Claire's pitchers knew him as "Saint." Hours before games, he would join them for games of pepper in the outfield or bullpen.
"Kind of like a father figure," starter John Lannan said.
"If you wanted to do something he would do it," Joel Hanrahan said. "If you wanted to go out at 10 a.m. on an off day and play catch, he'd do it for you."
Hanrahan and Lannan were out for pizza on Monday night when Lannan's cellphone rang. It was St. Claire. He broke the news.
"It kind of upset our dinner," Hanrahan said. "John was pretty shaken up with it."
The Nationals announced the move officially yesterday afternoon, after St. Claire already had cleared his belongings from the clubhouse and departed for the airport.
Rizzo, speaking at a news conference, acknowledged that "it wasn't all Randy's fault. Sometimes the material he had to work with wasn't always as good as we would want it to be."
Did blame reach higher levels of the organization, he was asked.
"There is no doubt about it," Rizzo said.